Historic Buildings & Placemaking

Are historic buildings important to the placemaking agenda? The simple answer is “yes”, and that is why we have conservation areas, listed buildings and screeds of guidance on their protection.

I know that in the past people have created great places with little regard to historic buildings. Just think of Baron Haussmann’s reconstruction of central Paris which gave us some of the world’s finest urban environments by trashing every existing structure in the way. But, to be honest, over the last century or so, our track record of creating new places by this approach has been pretty dismal.

The best of today’s placemaking is predicated on sustainability and creating a diversity of uses, residents and visitors. These places tend not to be “made” and perhaps could be more accurately thought of as “evolving”- hence recognising the time element needed in their creation. Good places “tell their story” and this is why historic buildings are so important.

When we are creating places, designers look for elements like historic buildings, mature trees, old walls and existing (often hidden) water courses to structure their proposals and it is amazing how even very small fragments of the past can give a place a sense of identity. But although society has recognised the importance of our historic environment since the conservation movements of the 1960’s we still have a host of issues to confront, so here are a few thoughts:

The Money Game: Resources of time and money are (and always will be) a major issue, as the stewardship of the historic environment is an area where the gains are long term and will always have to compete with areas where the gain is more immediate, such as health and education. Hence we need to constantly be promoting the economic benefits which historic buildings can bring. The “Place Principle” which is now a key plank of Scottish Government policy should provide a good basis for this, but it needs other civic and professional organisations to be actively making the case.

Finding More History: Much of our placemaking today focuses on adaption and regeneration in town and city centres where there are fortunately a lot of historic buildings which can contribute. It seems that the big problem lies in the new housing areas (often called villages) which are growing up around the edges of our towns. Placemaking is often a forgotten concept here and there are too few planning incentives to reward the good developers and constrain the bad. Noticeably, this is where historic buildings are more sparse and so cannot be used to create identity, so perhaps focusing our listing system more intensely on identifying historic artifacts in the areas which we might see developed in the future would be useful.

Regulations: Our society can only afford to keep a limited number of buildings purely for historical reasons and most require a valid use with an economic base. This often means adaption of structures to uses which may not be the most efficient fit with the building (think of churches) and where often our building regulations seem to mitigate against effective re-use. It appears to me that when our society produces regulations, we often fail to recognise how flexible human behaviour can be and our ability to address perceived problems.

Who Takes the Risk: We need to better assess the wider value of our historic buildings and their contribution to place. Bringing historic buildings back to beneficial use often involves a number of parties, a substantial amount of public money and untold hours of volunteer time. At the heart of this is identifying an “owner of last resort” and how risk is managed. Currently our system is too fragmented and takes too many years to reach conclusions. It is vital to be able to see a historic building as a positive opportunity in a placemaking programme rather than a liability which may threaten and delay the whole process (if interested, follow the story of Ayr Station Hotel of which much has been written).

The Energy Challenge: We know we need to protect our planet, that energy is a major component in this and somewhere about half of our energy use involves buildings. We have known this for years and need to drastically step up our insulation programmes. The sad irony is that, in my experience, the very buildings in which people are in the deepest fuel poverty are often the easiest to insulate.

Historic buildings provide much more of a challenge, we have a lot of them, and each needs a bespoke approach. So, we need to balance the positives of historic structures (embodied energy / often high density) with an acceptance of their energy liabilities and devise specific solutions for them.

But I have a concern. We seem to live in a world where every issue is now portrayed as a crisis or an emergency. Although this is beloved by the media, it tends to lead to short term responses and blanket decision making to address long term and complex problems. In hearing of “emergency insulation programmes” I worry for our historic towns and the danger of ushering in programmes of over cladding our historic buildings, with the impact that would have on placemaking and our culture in general.

Finally, a scary thought. If you just think of trying to insulate Edinburgh’s historic New town or Glasgow‘s West End, then you see the challenge. The ultimate irony would be spending 50 years doing it, just in time for our scientists to crack nuclear fusion and give us all that carbon-free energy. Who would want to predict the future…….